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More than 200 Pinellas inmates sleep on floor as coronavirus creates bottleneck

The Florida state prison system has stopped accepting new inmates, said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, creating a bottleneck at county jails.

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More than 200 inmates at the Pinellas County jail are sleeping on the floor as coronavirus precautions create a bottleneck at county jails.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri sent an email to police chiefs Monday requesting that officers use “good judgment and decision-making” on whether to make an arrest that would result in a jail booking. Gualtieri pointed out other options — such as notices to appear in court, which carry the same weight as an arrest without requiring a jail stay — but did not order officers to take such actions.

“We need everyone’s help in managing the jail population,” the sheriff wrote. “This situation will not end soon and the more prudently we act now will help avoid having to impose restrictions in the future.”

Related: Defense attorneys to police: Stop jailing certain offenders during coronavirus pandemic

The jail has long struggled with capacity. On a typical day, about 150 inmates are sleeping on rubber mats on the floor, Gualtieri said. But the Florida Department of Corrections, which manages the state prison system, has stopped taking inmate transfers, aggravating the problem, the sheriff said.

That means inmates awaiting trial, or those newly sentenced to prison time, have to stay in the jail. As of Monday, there were 67 inmates in these categories and 220 people sleeping on the floor.

“As we’re bringing people in the front door, we’re not pushing those people out the back door," Gualtieri said.

The Department of Corrections said Tuesday in a statement that the restriction began March 16 and will last until March 30.

“At that time, an evaluation will be made in consultation with public health officials to determine a plan of action moving forward,” the statement says.

The population bubble comes during a time when health officials are recommending against large gatherings and close contact. Some experts and civil rights groups have warned that prisons and jails will likely become hotbeds of infection and urged officials to act now.

On Tuesday, 31 elected prosecutors from across the country issued a joint statement urging criminal justice officials to take steps to stop the spread of the virus in jails, prisons and immigration detention centers.

The recommendations include adopting cite-and-release policies for offenses that pose no physical threat to the community; releasing individuals held because they cannot afford cash bail, unless they pose a risk to public safety; and releasing older detainees, people with medical conditions vulnerable to infection, and detainees within six months of completing their sentence or incarcerated on technical probation and parole violations.

“If these facilities become breeding grounds for the coronavirus, it will not only impact those incarcerated, but our entire community," the statement says.

The Pinellas jail typically has a daily population of 3,000 to 3,100 offenders. As of Monday, no inmates were in medical isolation or experiencing worrisome symptoms, Gualtieri said. Jail staff is screening incoming offenders for symptoms and travel history.

The jail has put in place other measures to reduce contact. No in-person visitors, even lawyers or volunteers, are allowed inside. Attorneys can still use the jail’s video visitation system to talk to clients. Video visitation also remains open to family and friends and jail inmates can have two free phone calls. The jail lobby remains open for bail payments.

This approach differs from Hillsborough County, where two jail lobbies as well as the video visitation system are being closed to all but attorneys. Friends and family can still visit with inmates from their home computers using the jail’s remote video visitation program.

Using the program costs $8 for 20 minutes, the Sheriff’s Office said, and users can set up an account at hcsovisit.com/app. Inmates will also receive two free phone calls.

Those paying bail for inmates at Hillsborough’s Falkenburg Road and Orient Road centers will be directed to a side window. And those picking up inmates should wait in their cars, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has also closed the county’s jail’s lobby except for necessary services. Visitation must be done remotely, spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said in an email.

Meantime, some jails across the country, including at least one in Florida, are planning to let out certain inmates to manage their populations. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced Monday night that her agency is forming a plan to release misdemeanor and non-violent offenders, according to the Miami New Times.

Media outlets in Cleveland reported that the Cuyahoga County Jail will release 300 inmates in the next few weeks.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said Monday he would support releasing some inmates who don’t pose a danger to the community. It wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 2018, Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta signed an order allowing Chronister, in the event of a hurricane warning, to release some pre-trial detainees who didn’t pose a safety threat.

“I’m certainly not opposed to people who are being charged with low-level misdemeanors being released from our jail,” Chronister said. “That reduces the likelihood of someone in our jail population being infected."

Chronister added that he has directed his deputies to issue notices to appear in court for minor offenses when possible instead of arresting and booking people into the jail.

“We’re doing a lot more notice-to-appears,” he said. “If it’s not a violent offense, we’ve instructed our deputies to release on their own recognizance whenever feasible.”

When arrestees are brought to the Hillsborough jail, arresting officers are asked a series of questions about the arrestees’ travel history and if they are showing any symptoms of coronavirus. If the arrestee is at risk for carrying the virus, a deputy will dress in personal protection equipment to transport the inmate for testing and treatment to an area of the jail where there’s no danger of infecting other inmates or staff. That hadn’t been necessary as of Monday, Chronister said.

Gualtieri, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said he hopes it doesn’t become necessary to release inmates. He would first consider other options, such as moving offenders to jails that have more capacity, before releasing people.

“There are hundreds of open beds in county jails across Florida," he said. “Further, I know of no county jail with any cases of the virus.”

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